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Monday, July 1, 2013

Tom Still: How immigration reform will help keep talent in Wisconsin

By Tom Still
MADISON – Houssam Nassif is everything the "big data" marketplace in the United States and Wisconsin should want in an employee, but has trouble hiring.

He holds a doctorate in computer science from the UW-Madison with an emphasis in machine learning (think artificial intelligence), bioinformatics and statistics. Nassif has interned for companies such as Google and Cisco Systems, managed major databases, is fluent in three languages and even finds time to sail, explore caves and raise a family.

Unfortunately, he's not an American citizen.

Born in Lebanon and educated in Beirut and the United States, Nassif is a 30-something poster child for the immigration reform debate raging in Congress. His recent search for full-time employment in Wisconsin turned up dry, despite holding a degree from one of the nation's best computer science schools. He will soon move to the state of Washington to begin work for a major company there.

Nassif's search was complicated by the fact he needed to land with a company that could help him secure a federal work visa. Such a visa would allow him and his family to stay longer and eventually seek to become U.S. citizens.

"It was crucial," Nassif said of the work visa. "I stopped a few interviews because of the companies not being able to assist."

While Nassif will stay in the United States, it appears his talents are lost to Wisconsin – at least, for now. His predicament is symbolic of a larger issue: Wisconsin's inability to attract and retain more foreign-born workers, especially in skilled positions.

In a global economy, Wisconsin looks much less international than even its neighbors. Compared to Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, Wisconsin has a smaller share of foreign-born population and total labor force, as well as fewer foreign-born business owners.

The gap is most glaring when it comes to keeping foreign-born workers with specific skills needed in a knowledge-based economy. The United States annually graduates about 40,000 foreign-born students with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, but only a fraction are allowed or encouraged to stay.

Eric Schmidt, the former CEO and chairman of Google, summarized it when he said: "Of all the crazy rules in our government, the craziest bar none is that we take the smartest people in the world, we bring them to America, we give them (doctoral degrees) in technical science, and we kick them out to go found great companies outside of America. This is madness."

It is madness that directly affects the American economy, which has historically depended on immigrants for labor – from manual to intellectual – and as a source of entrepreneurism. Immigrants founded Google, Intel, eBay, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo!, Hotmail, PayPal, U.S. Steel, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Pfizer and Procter & Gamble Co., to name a few examples. One-quarter of American Nobel Prize winners since 1901 and 40 percent of the doctorate-level scientists working today in the United States are foreign-born.

Aren't immigrants taking jobs from native-born citizens? Not in the case of scientists, engineers and technicians, who remain in short supply nationally due to decades of decline in the production of American-born students in those fields.

"... There is no evidence that immigration has a negative impact on native employment," read a 2012 workforce report to Gov. Scott Walker, authored by former Bucyrus-Erie CEO Tim Sullivan. "There is evidence that immigration encourages U.S. natives to upgrade their skills through additional education or training. This would encourage native-born workers to shift into the middle class."

Sullivan noted that even if Wisconsin retrained every unemployed worker in the state and matched them with jobs, it would still fall short of filling the projected 925,000 jobs to be replaced or created by 2018. That's because the state's native-born, working-age population has peaked and will decline over time.

Solutions under consideration in Congress include granting permanent residency ("green cards") to foreign students who earn graduate degrees in science and technical fields and removing caps on the H-1B temporary high-skilled visa.

In Wisconsin, the state could recast the existing Education Tax Credit so that employers could use it to hire people from outside Wisconsin – whether they're from Indiana or India – and help cover their education.

As for Nassif, he said he "absolutely" would have stayed in Wisconsin if the right opportunity had emerged. So, he insists, would many others like him. As Wisconsin's members of Congress weigh how to vote on immigration reform in its final form, they should bear in mind that a prosperous state needs skilled workers from close to home and abroad.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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